Empowering Legal Operations Professionals to Take a Proactive Approach – Interview with Stephanie Corey, CEO and Co-founder of UpLevel Ops

  • Published on:
    February 14, 2023
  • Reading time by:
    6 minutes
Interview with Stephanie Corey CEO and Co-founder of UpLevel Ops

Stephanie Corey is the CEO and co-founder of UpLevel Ops, a comprehensive legal operations consulting firm that supports professionals in various industries, assisting them in addressing technology and organizational challenges. Stephanie is fortunate to have a job that allows her to collaborate with intelligent individuals and develop innovative solutions for clients by solving real-world problems. She communicates with top legal operations professionals globally, continually learning and growing from their experiences.

Initially, the legal operations function was reactive and operational, primarily brought in to reduce costs on external counsel while solving issues as they arose. However, as the industry matured, so did the Ops function. Many legal operations professionals now serve as Chief of Staff or senior advisors to General Counsel or Chief Legal Officers. Instead of relying on spreadsheets, they spend time in strategic planning meetings with executive staff, analyzing the work done within the department and determining the best way to delegate it to partners, internal resources, or law firms. They now have a seat at the table and are regarded as equals to the other deputies to the General Counsel.

Stephanie and her team at UpLevel Ops are committed to empowering legal operations professionals to take a proactive approach to impact their businesses positively and become forward-thinking leaders in their legal departments and careers.

In this interview, Stephanie Corey, the CEO and co-founder of UpLevel Ops, talks about her experience leading a comprehensive legal operations consulting firm that supports professionals in addressing technology and organizational challenges.

Tell us about your business, who’s it for, and what is the story behind it? 

The evolution of my career into leading the team at UpLevel Ops is not a traditional path, but it’s surprisingly organic.

I have an undergrad degree in Economics and an MBA, and I’d interned at Merrill Lynch, so the Legal Industry wasn’t even on my radar when I started my career. After getting my brokerage licenses, I quickly realized that the life of a trader wasn’t the life for me. Right around this time, a friend working at HP shared a job opening with me for this role called “legal operations.” I had no idea what it was, and as it turns out, nobody else did either back then. The position was initially focused on outside counsel management, spend, and budgeting, and had a small technical component, but the role continued to grow over time, and eventually, I managed Finance, Accounts Payable, Technology, Administration, Research, and the Law Library, eDiscovery and Records Retention for the whole company.

I’m grateful I spent over a decade at HP learning what legal departments do and how to help them function better. I started the CLOC organization (Corporate Legal Operations Consortium) during my time there. I recognized that I was the only person performing my role at HP, and I had to look outward to learn best practices and benchmarks. I started calling around and found several other companies here in the Valley that had this role in place. There turned out to be about 15 of us, so we started getting together regularly; this was the genesis of CLOC.

I moved to VMWare shortly after HP, and then my good friend and colleague Jon Hoak took the GC role at Flextronics shortly after that. He asked me to start a legal operations function from the ground up there, so I went from managing a department of more than 100 people at HP to being a department of just one person at Flex. We had a great team with great partnerships across the organization with Finance, IT, and HR, and we were able to accomplish a surprising amount and had so much fun at the same time.

We started UpLevel 6 years ago when Jon decided to leave his corporate role with the eventual aspiration of retirement. That was the first year of the CLOC conference, and that event’s success really hit home for me. I saw how much the legal operations role has expanded and how many people were (and are) struggling to find better ways to deliver their legal services.

Rather than find another role in another company, I convinced Jon to start this business with me, and it’s been a complete whirlwind ever since. We now have a small but mighty team across the US, all with tremendous in-house experience supporting our clients worldwide.

What has been your biggest collaboration so far?

Collaboration is essential for Legal Operations personnel. Groups like CLOC will play a role in educating Legal Ops professionals, especially new ones, but I think there’s room for more thought leadership, especially from and for more senior legal ops professionals. That’s why Andrew Dick and I started LINK, the Legal Innovators Network. LINK is a community for experienced Legal Ops professionals to share their ideas through our message boards, library, and regular virtual and in-person events. We partner with the best legal tech and service providers in our industry to offer this free to our members. 

The LINK community has grown exponentially in the past year, especially when the pandemic sent us all into our home offices. The truth is, Legal Ops pros often feel ‘isolated’ because they can be a small team relative to the rest of the organization – I have been there myself! So I’ll devote myself to collaborative efforts because it’s vital to evolving and growing the industry and developing the next generation of talent.

What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them? 

This is an easy one for me because it’s an impulse I need to fight every day. It’s imposing my will onto my clients. A big lesson for me when I was in-house was that just because I knew it was the right thing to do for the company (think new program, new technology, etc.) didn’t mean that everyone was going to agree with me or adopt the new methodology. I suffered a rather expensive loss back in my earlier days when I tried to get the team to move to a new and better system that they just weren’t ready for, which of course, fell flat

In another instance that occurred years later: I developed an intake system for one of our deputies. I thought I delivered exactly what she asked for, but when she saw it, she absolutely hated it and held nothing back in her negative feedback. My initial reaction was to get defensive. But as they say, the period space between action and response is an opportunity for grace. So I took a breath and let her know that I would never try to force her to use a system she didn’t like and asked her if we could spend some time with her to talk about what we could do better because, at the end of the day, the only thing I cared about was her and her team’s satisfaction. I felt way better about my response than if I had been less than elegant, and let me tell you, she was so happy with my handling of the situation that she nominated me for a department award. 

I still try to maintain this approach in our consulting business at UpLevel. While we work hard to steer our clients in the right direction and always provide honest advice, being in a service industry like ours really means, “Thy will, not my will,” which means we take their lead and support and advise accordingly.

Who have been your own biggest mentors, and what is the best advice they have ever given you? 

This is a tricky question because I’ve had so many fantastic guides and teachers who got me to where I am today. But two significant people for me professionally are Jon Hoak, whom I’ve worked for and with for almost 20 years. Jon and I worked together at HP, then again at Flex International, and we started UpLevel together. His guidance, advice, and friendship have been pivotal for me through the years. The other is Fran Evans, who coached me personally and professionally, and she happens to be married to Jon! Some things I learned from them are that people come first. Period. And that every decision you make as a leader affects those people, so while you may need to make hard decisions, you need to be thoughtful about them. What may look like another number on a spreadsheet represents someone’s life and livelihood.

Another thing I learned during my tenure with Jon at Flex is: Culture eats strategy for lunch every time, but execution eats them both. I recognized that company culture is essential to a successful employee experience. Now, at UpLevel Ops, we have a small team and have built and worked to maintain the culture we always wanted when we were in-house. As the Buddhists say, and as Fran showed me, what you practice is what you have. In other words, companies need to be deliberate in identifying what they want their culture to be, creating practices that exemplify and reward that culture, and hiring people who embody those characteristics. As a leader, I work every day to embody those characteristics. It’s an ongoing challenge but worth it.

The other saying we use all the time and that we see with our clients daily is that transformation happens in small increments. We have many clients who start to modernize their operations one step at a time, and after a few years, they can look back and discover that their departments are transformed. Getting people to do things differently is hard and using the building block approach gives people time to move with the tide. It’s a gentler approach but still quite effective.

How do you balance work/life?

Honestly, starting UpLevel, I had zero balance. I burned the candle at both ends for the better part of 4 years, regularly putting in 15-hour days, and I was burning out fast. Now that I have a trustworthy and top-notch team supporting everything we do here, I’ve had a far better schedule. As the owner of this company, I always feel obligated to be connected to the clients and my team, so I usually don’t completely turn off. But I love the work and I love the people, so for me, this is fun. And I do have the flexibility to take time off during the day to do what I need to do for my family and me, and I completed my SCUBA certification last fall, and got to dive with a 250 lb. sea turtle in Mexico, so that’s a bucket list goal achieved! 

I think one key for me is never to be satisfied. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy – I’m a very happy person – it just means that I’m intellectually curious and always seeking the next thing to try and to learn, personally and professionally. I do love learning new things. 

All this being said, I do have advice for people seeking balance because it is a never-ending dance. First, this sounds cliché, but if you enjoy your work and get something out of it (not the company you work for, but you personally), you’ll feel less resentful about using your time to do that work. 

Second, this is specifically for working moms, but dads can use this advice, too! You can have it all, but maybe not all at once, and that’s OK. I worked standard corporate hours when my kids were at an age when they needed me. They were my priority, and I wanted to be there for them. Notice I didn’t say “little.” Of course, they needed me when they were little, but they really needed me in middle school and even into their teen years. Even now, they know they take priority. I have no problem rescheduling meetings with clients if I need to be with them for whatever reason, and I’m no longer shy about that or trying to hide that I have other responsibilities. Parenthood is my first responsibility. As they got older, they needed me less often, so I was able to focus on my career and start a company when the time was right for me, and luckily for the marketplace. But to do it all at once would have been too much for me, so give yourself permission to focus on one thing at a time. 

Do you believe in destiny or do you think you can control your fate? 

Well, I certainly don’t believe in any pre-destined fate for any of us. I know that I am here through a series of decisions I’ve made in my life. If I’d made different decisions, I’d have a totally different life, but those choices are my own. From a spiritual perspective, I believe life gives us what we need when we need it if we’re paying attention. 

What is a skill you think all women should learn and why? 

I feel like there’s no such thing as women’s or men’s skills. Women should learn to follow their instincts and not be afraid of putting themselves out there. The sooner we leave those ideas of ‘what women should learn,’ the better. Many women feel there are boundaries to ‘what’s appropriate’ regarding their goals or careers. That’s bullshit if you’ll pardon me. That’s like in the 1950s when women were expected to be teachers or nurses. I want to think we’ve moved on from that thinking but hey, current political shifts might prove me wrong on that one. 

Regardless, Legal Ops is a fantastic field for women, and we’ve seen female representation grow substantially in the past few years. The role allows them to do it all: Be analytical, be strategic, be empathetic, be direct and honest communicators. These are especially important in Legal, and many women find they like the diversity and autonomy of the role. 

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